Horry County’s mask mandate will continue for another 60 days.
County council members on Tuesday voted to extend the emergency policy, which is designed to slow the spread of COVID-19.
In July, county council approved an ordinance that required people to wear face coverings in many public settings, including retail stores. The 60-day ordinance, which was set to expire, applied to areas of the county that are not inside city limits.
Tuesday’s vote continues that policy. However, the way council approved the extension sparked criticism.
The item was listed on the council's consent agenda, a series of ordinances and resolutions that council members approve with a single vote and typically without extensive discussion. It's essentially a rubber stamp designed to speed up the meeting. But some county leaders wanted the ordinance to be removed from the consent agenda and debated publicly.
That looked like it might happen, but the effort to change the agenda failed by a 5-7 vote. Council members Al Allen, Johnny Vaught, Paul Prince, Danny Hardee and chairman Johnny Gardner were in the minority. Councilmen Dennis DiSabato, Cam Crawford, Tyler Servant, Bill Howard, Gary Loftus, Harold Worley and Orton Bellamy supported keeping the agenda unchanged and thus continuing the policy.
Allen blasted the move, calling it “a dark day in Horry County.” He pointed out that items are routinely moved from the consent section to the main agenda without opposition.
"This is such an important issue that it does not need to go on the consent agenda," he said. "The people need to know what this council is about to do. It is terrible and it is tyranny to try to slide something like this over the people of Horry County by putting it in the consent agenda."
Under the policy, those entering businesses are required to wear face coverings while inside those establishments. Masks may be removed to receive certain services, such as a haircut, or for someone to eat a meal at a restaurant.
Restaurants and retail stores must also require their employees to wear masks, and the ordinance also applies to personal care providers such as nail salons, tattoo parlors and barber shops.
There are exceptions for people with health conditions that prevent them from wearing masks and for those whose religious beliefs do not allow them to wear face coverings.
Violating the policy is a civil infraction punishable by a $25 fine for the first offense, $50 for a second offense and $100 for all subsequent violations. The ordinance states that each day of not wearing a mask would be considered a separate offense.
So far, county authorities have issued no citations for violating the ordinance, county spokeswoman Kelly Moore said.
After the meeting, DiSabato said he wants the mask mandate to continue because it's working.
"The data has shown over the course of the last 60 days that the rate of infection in the county has slowed," he said. "It's hard to deny that that has something to do with the fact that the county and municipalities all passed the mask ordinance at the same time. I think we could be doing a better job of enforcement. I can tell you that the majority of the people that I've spoken with are supportive of the mask ordinance."
DiSabato said he's not sure when the ordinance will be lifted.
"These are all temporary measures," he said. "At some point in the future we'll be able to get rid of this, but right now it doesn't appear to be that time. I'm hopeful that we won't have to do it again. Maybe we'll have to do it one more time and that'll be it. Until we have some kind of vaccination or something that really curbs the rate of infection in this county and this state and the country, then I think we need to do our best to try and protect each other and this is one way to do it."
As for Allen's comment about "tyranny"?
"I can give you dozens of examples of things that our forefathers have implemented during public health crises," he said. "Public health is one of the basic tenets of government. And so, no, I do not look at it as an overreach. I do not look at it as tyranny. Nobody is restricting anybody's movement. Nobody is restricting anybody's access to certain areas. We're just asking you to put a face covering on and protect each other from this infection."
Last week, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control released data showing that masks are effective at slowing the spread of the virus. About 40 percent of South Carolinians, roughly 2 million people, live in jurisdictions that have local mask requirements in place.
Municipalities across the Grand Strand, including North Myrtle Beach, Myrtle Beach and Conway, have approved similar policies. North Myrtle Beach officials voted to extend their mask mandate on Monday.
CORRECTION: Horry County initially said no citations had been issued for violating the ordinance. On Tuesday night, county spokeswoman Kelly Moore said one citation was issued that day. On Wednesday, Moore said county officials incorrectly recorded a warning as a citation. The story has been updated to reflect the latest information.